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Monday, May 29, 2017

Head of Libyan Unity government Faiez Serraj meets with opponents

(May 14)Faiez Serraj, head of the Presidential Council of the UN-brokered Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA), along with Fathi Majbri the deputy president, had talks in Tunis with a group of House of Representatives (HoR) members mainly from the east.

The Tunis talks focused on possible developments from the meeting Serraj had earlier with the commander of the forces associated with the HoR, the Libyan National Army (LNA), Marshal Khalifa Haftar. The talks were held over a week ago in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (UAE). The meetings were described by many as positive and a breakthrough although there was no joint statement after the meetings. Separate statements were made by each side emphasizing quite different aspects of a proposed agreement. Nothing has been signed. There were to follow up talks this week. An interesting article analysing the situation can be found here. It emphasizes that there is no deal yet.
Issa-Al-Araibi a member of the group who is from Benghazi said the members told Serraj to hold more meetings with Haftar. Up until now, Al-Araibi has been an opponent of the Presidency Council (PC) and GNA that Serraj heads. The talks followed upon those two days ago at which Serraj head briefed about 50 members of the HoR on his meeting with Haftar. One member of the HoR said he was disappointed that Serraj had flown to Tunis rather than Cairo to meet Serraj. He wanted Haftar to meet Serraj in Cairo. He blamed hard-liners in Tripoli and Misrata for the cancellation of further second round talks scheduled to be held this week in Cairo.
While the details of any agreement still appear unclear, it seems certain that Haftar must be offered a significant role in any new unified government before the HoR will implement the terms of the LPA and vote confidence in the GNA government. There must also be agreement on amending the LPA by at least deleting section 8 that deprives Haftar of leadership of the armed forces of the unified GNA. This is a non-starter with many in the PC and certainly within the State High Council as well. There has been considerable reaction opposed to any such agreement. An important militia group demanded the resignation of the Minister of Foreign Affairs:A powerful brigade from Tripoli demanded Tuesday Foreign Minister-designate of UN-installed government, Mohamed Sayala, to resign for his recognition of Khalifa Haftar as “the General Commander of the Libyan Army.” Haitem Tajouri-led Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade, which protects HQ of the ministry, said work will be suspended inside the ministry in protest against Sayala’s recognition.
Nevertheless UN Special Envoy, Martin Kobler, expressed his optimism with his usual type of tweet with almost no substance or detailed information: "Very positive mtg w/ PM Serraj in #Tripoli. Discussed recent developments & way fwd. Strong international support for the political process." Another tweet indicates that Haftar is meeting again with Egyptian president Sisi: "Sisi meets Haftar in Cairo today. Egyptian president's office says he 'stressed the need to lift the arms embargo'." Sisi has been a strong supporter of Haftar. Perhaps next week an actual agreement will be signed although any agreement that gives Haftar a significant role in a unified GNA could very well cause an outright war against Haftar.


Southern Yemen Separatists threaten Saudi-backed government

Senior tribal, political and military leaders have formed a new council that seeks the secession of the south from the Yemen government of president Mansour Hadi,

The formation of the group was announced by former governor of the Port of Aden Aidaroos al-Zubaidi. The Hadi government backed by the Saudis, many Gulf States and the US has been fighting a lengthy battle against Houthi rebels who still control much of the north of Yemen including the capital Sanaa. The Houthis are Shia Muslims and have the support of Iran whereas the supporters of the Hadi government are Sunnis, However, the former president Saleh is also allied with the Houthis and those in the armed forces who support him. Zubaidi was recently fired as the governor of Aden,
Before the Houthis drove Hadi out of power and into exile, there was already opposition to the Hadi government in the south but many in the movement rallied behind the Hadi government's offensive against the Houthis which recaptured Aden and much of the south of the country. The flag of the former South Yemen whose forces were defeated by those from the north in 1994 uniting the country often can be seen flown by military vehicles. Zubaidi said a national political leadership with himself as president would represent the south. The south contains most of the modest oil deposits that are a prime support of the Yemeni economy. The new development threatens the Saudi-led campaign against the Houthis. For their part the Houthis claim that Gulf state powers seek to divide the country and occupy it.
An anonymous senior southern official said: "It is a step forward after a long struggle. The people of South Arabia have finally managed to organize themselves towards independence,The UAE and the Gulf respect the right of self determination, and we don't think they will be against the Southern will ... We don't advise the Hadi government to use force.``Many in the south feel that they had been exploited by the north under Hadi's and previous governments and that they were cut off from jobs and influence. Zubaidi said that the council would continue to cooperate with the coalition and foreign powers to combat what he called Iranian influence and terrorism.
Zubaidi's announcement came just as there was a meeting between Hadi and the UN special envoy to Yemen, Ould Sheikh Ahmed. Ahmed is hoping to resume peace talks between the Hadi government and the Houthi rebels. Hadi had been trying to keep together a coalition fighting the Houthis. Zubaidi's move was provoked after he was fired on the 27th April along with cabinet minister Hani bin Braik. Both men played key roles in driving the Houthis out of Aden and adjacent territory but they also have close ties to the secessionist movement.
After the firing thousands of demonstrators had demanded that Zubaidi set up a new leadership. The new council has 26 members and includes governors of five southern provinces and even two government ministers. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) which is part of the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthis is apparently involved in the move against Hadi. Hadi accused the UAE crown prince Mohammed bin Zayed as acting like an occupier. It seems that the real problem is that he Zayed had been working closely with the fired Aden governor. No doubt the UAE may be hoping for a southern government over which it would have considerable influence.
The World Health Organization estimates the death toll from the Yemen conflict so far at more than 8,000 with another 44,500 injured since the Saudi-led coalition intervened in the conflict back in 2015. The UN claims that two thirds of the population are on the brink of famine.


US provides Kurds in Syria with wepapons to the dismay of Turkey

President Donald Trump has decided to provide the YPG Kurds in Syria with weapons. The YPG or People's Protection Units are key allies in fighting the Islamic State but are regarded as terrorists by the Turks.

The Turks worry that the Kurds will establish an independent or autonomous Kurdish area on the northern border of Syria with Turkey. This may provide Kurds in Turkey more encouragement to establish more autonomy or even independence in adjacent Kurdish areas of the Turkey. The arms are intended to help the YPG and its Arab allies carry out an offensive against Raqqa the de facto capital of the Islamic State in Syria. The Turks were hoping that they would be involved in the offensive. U.S. troops are helping out the Kurds. The YPG is part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) a multi-ethnic force that includes Arabs. The group has just recently captured the town of Tabqa and the adjacent dam. The U.S. is to send heavy machine guns, anti-tank weapons, armored cars, and engineering equipment to help out with the offensive against Raqqa.
Turkey has tried to get the U.S. to break off its alliance with the Syrian Kurds as it considers the YPG group key members of the Syrian Democratic as terrorists and simply an arm of the Kurdistan Worker's Party that both the U.S. and Turkey classify as terrorists. However, the U.S. does not classify the YPG as terrorist and consider them key fighters against the IS as part of the SDF. As discussed in a recent Digital Journal, Turkey wants the U.S. to reverse its decision immediately. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavasoglu said: Both the PKK and the YPG are terrorist organisations and they are no different, apart from their names. Every weapon seized by them is a threat to Turkey.”
Trump has long claimed he gives priority to defeating the Islamic State and he has agreed to a long-delayed plan to capture Raqqa using the forces of the SDF. They are said to have 45,000 fighters in all with 13,000 of them Arabs. It has often defeated the IS when supported by U.S. air strikes as well as advisers on the ground. The U.S. also hopes that Mosul in Iraq can also be captured soon dealing the IS a double blow.
Turkey has itself sent troops to help out anti-Assad forces but also to try and stop the expansion of Kurdish influence. While the use of Turkish ground troops to capture territory west of the Euphrates has had some success. The U.S. has been wary of asking for help from Turkey in the offensive against Raqqa as it suspects that Turkey is more interesting in ensuring that the Kurds control no more territory rather than fighting the Islamic State. The Turks are also quite anxious to keep pressure on the Assad regime whereas the Kurds appear to have little interest in doing this.
Turkey has already back on April 25th attacked Kurdish positions and killed 20 fighters and threatened similar actions. The U.S. was angered and called the Turkish air strikes unacceptable and sent U.S. troops to the Raqqa area so that Turkey would not possibly attack Kurdish troops there and it also set up patrols on the Syrian side of the border. Trump's decision to arm the Kurds may make it difficult for Turkey to keep up a military campaign against the YPG in Syria and will give the group more influence.
Turkish president Erdogan is to meet with Trump on the May 16 and 17. The meeting could be filled with conflict but Trump is unpredictable. However, as of now there appears to be little likelihood that he will reverse his policy just because Erdogan wants him to do so. Trump may attempt to reassure Turkey that the weapons sent to the Kurds will be limited and will be used only against the Islamic State. However, the Turks may rightfully doubt that it will be impossible to make sure this happens. The Kurds, for their part, also worry that once the Islamic State is defeated the U.S. will have no use for them and will ally themselves more closely with Turkish interests.


Trump claims he is ready for "massive" renegotiation of NAFTA

(May 13) In an interview with the Economist, US president Donald Trump said that as soon as his trade czar is approved by the Senate he will start a major renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Act NAFTA.

Just today, the US Senate voted in favor of approving Robert Lighthizer as the US Trade Representative. Lighthizer's nomination had been held up by his having to get a legal waiver as he had worked for foreign governments.
Trump said he intends to file a 90-day notice with Congress and would work with it on negotiating priorities. Talks would start with Canada and Mexico later this year. Trum said that the clock started with Lighthizer's nomination. The Trump administration has already said it wanted significant changes in a number of areas that included dairy, auto, and pharmaceuticals as well as the dispute-resolution mechanism. Trump said that he wanted "massive changes" to the system. This may not sit well with either Canada or Mexico who could very well reject Trump's suggested changes and also demand changes of their own. So far, Canadian PM Trudeau has made no comment on the proportionality clause that many critics want changed nor the necessity to ensure that water is not classed as a commodity or service. It should be excluded from the agreement.
It may take ages for a massive renegotiation of NAFTA assuming it is even possible. Negotiations wont start until later this year. Mexico wants a deal by early next year before the Mexican election but most observers think it will take more than a few months to make a major overhaul of NAFTA. Given the problems that appear to be building up for Trump he may be more concerned with other issues than NAFTA, such as surviving as president.
Trump had earlier claimed he was ready to withdraw from NAFTA but after phone calls from Trudeau and the Mexican president urging him to reconsider, he decided not to do so. Trump said:"I have a very good relationship with Justin and a very good relationship with the president of Mexico. It was an amazing thing. They called separately 10 minutes apart. I just put down the phone with the president of Mexico when the prime minister of Canada called. And they both asked almost identical questions: 'We would like to know if it would be possible to negotiate as opposed to a termination.'And I said, 'Yes, it is. Absolutely.' So we did that and we'll start. "
What more likely happened is that alarm bells were going off within the business community and pressure was put on members of the Trump administration to stop Trump from actually withdrawing from NAFTA. Trump's own son-in-law Jared Kushner set up the Trudeau call. Trump may have wanted to take credit for forcing Canada and Mexico into negotiation before his 100 days in office. This is rather ridiculous in that both Canada and Mexico have always expressed their willingness to renegotiate NAFTA. However, Trump's moves being ridiculous are the norm rather than exceptional. However, neither government will step in to spoil Trump's joy in claiming credit for in effect doing nothing except what was planned all along.
Maryscott Greenwood of the Canadian-American Busines Council wrote in an article: "President Trump is eager for some wins. Canada can help provide him with one, while also advancing its own interests. The Canadian government could present the United States with a proposal for aligning a particular set of regulations. This would represent a bilateral victory for what is at the moment a U.S.-only effort to cut regulatory red tape." However, this is a minor issue. Any major overhaul will involve major disputes as well. It remains to be seen if Canada will bring up issues that were very much against Canadian interests in the original NAFTA agreement. Mexico too may want to make substantial change in its own interests. An America First policy may not be agreeable to either Mexico or Canada. There should be public consultation on the issues in all three countries and a transparent negotiation process. Trump has not asked for this but it would seem neither Trudeau or the Mexican president have either.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Unity Libyan government High Council of State names representatives for dialogue on Libyan Political Agreement

(May 11)The High Council of State (HCS) a mainly consultative body of the UN-brokered Government of National Accord (GNA) chose 13 members to represent it in discussions by the Libyan dialogue to amend the Libya Political Agreement(LPA).

The group was named as the "committee tasked with amending the political agreement'. The present head of the Presidential Council of the Faiez Serraj will lead the group. The committee is also to reach agreements with the HoR as set out in the LPA. The rival House of Representatives (HoR) government based in Tobruk earlier appointed a 22 member committee to represent its interest. Mohammed Emazzeb, the first deputy of the HCS is to supervise and follow up the committee's work and progress.
According to the terms of the LPA signed in Skhirat Morocco in December of 2015, the HoR must vote confidence in the GNA and also amend the constitutional declaration of 2011 to incorporate the LPA before the GNA term starts and for it to be legitimate. This has never happened. On August 22 of 2016 the HoR met and a second vote of confidence failed. Although at the time there was an apparent deadline of ten days for the GNA to present a new cabinet, little has been achieved since then. The main problem seems to be accommodating Marshall Khalifa Haftar commander in chief of the HoR armed forces, the Libyan National Army(LNA). Section 8 of the present LPA gives the role of commander in chief to the PC rather than to Haftar. The HoR will no doubt demand that the section be deleted and that Haftar remains commander in chief of the new armed forces or at the very least there be an arrangement acceptable to him. A recent meeting between Haftar and Serraj was supposed to have been positive and resulted in an agreement. No joint statement was issued and it is still not clear what has been agreed to. However there are to be further meetings and perhaps an announcement this week.
Meanwhile the HSC has expressed concern that UN envoy Martin Kobler is trying to control the political process rather than facilitate it. An HSC statement said: “The UN envoy ignores the mechanisms of the political agreement after he was calling for implementing it.” The statement claims that there is a convergence of views between the HSC and the HoR although it did not specially say what those views were following a meeting between head of the HSC Abdul-Rahman Swaihli and of the HoR Ageelah Saleh in Rome. Presumably Kobler is planning to hold a meeting of the Dialogue members representing the two parties soon but no date or location has been announced. It has never been clear to me what sections of the LPA Kobler is using to justify any amendments. Presumably, the amendments would need to be agreed to not only by the HoR but also by the PC of the GNA. Perhaps the situation will be clarified in the coming days. Any attempt to allow Haftar to be commander of the armed forces in a new GNA will be met with fierce resistance from many in the GNA.

Unity Government Foreign Affairs minister suggests rival commander Haftar should head armed forces of new government

(May 10) At a press conference in Algiers, Mohammed Siyala the foreign affairs minister of the UN-backed Government of National Accord issued a controversial statement about Marshal Khalifa Haftar commander of the armed forces of the rival eastern government.

Siyala said that Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army(LNA) as he calls the armed forces of the House of Representatives' government, would also be head of the army of a unified Libya if he recognized the UN-brokered Government of National Accord (GNA). Siyala said that Haftar was "the commander in chief of the Libyan Army" but later qualified that by adding that before becoming such he must recognize the GNA as the sole authority, not the government of the HoR. Siyala was an official in the Gadaffi government.
However, the present Libya Political Agreement (LPA), section 8, makes the Presidential Council(PC) of the GNA not Haftar commander in chief of the Libyan Army. Haftar has been a key figure in rejecting the authority of the GNA and has consolidated power in eastern LIbya. He not only controls the oil fields but has replaced many local authorities by military officials. The head of the PC, Faiez Serraj, and Haftar met in Dubai in the UAE last week. The meeting has been described by many as positive. However there was no joint statement made after the meetings and separate statements with different contents were issued by each side eventually. The statements are described in a recent Libya Observer article:Haftar's statement concentrated on the two parties' agreement on enabling the military institution in its war on terrorism, and making sure the ban on weapons purchase by what he called the Libyan army is lifted. Whereas, Al-Sirraj's statement hardly mentioned anything about lifting the arms ban or enabling the military institution, but rather it was centered on finding a comprehensive strategy to develop and build the Libyan army, reaffirming that it should be under the command of a civilian authority.Unlike Serraj's statement, Haftar's did not even mention the February 17th revolution that overthrew Gaddafi and focused mainly on enabling and supporting the military. The two did agree on alleviating the current economic situation, fighting terrorism, and the need to deescalate the military tensions in southern Libya. However, clashes went on between the two groups in the south even while the talks were on. There was no joint statement outlining a way forward to unify the two sides. There are to be further talks this week but it remains to be seen what if any final agreement is reached. Nothing had been signed.
Al Jazeera's Mahmoud Abdelwahed in Tripoli said that that the statement by the minister was met with a wave of criticism:"Many people are angry and are wondering how a general whose forces have committed atrocities in Benghazi, whose aircrafts have been raiding ports and airports all over Libya, can be called by the UN-backed GNA as the commander and chief of the Libyan army.There is a contradiction here because Haftar himself does not recognise the UN-backed government."Siyala did qualify his statement by indicating that Haftar must first recognize the authority of the GNA. However, many people in the west and many within the GNA are vehemently opposed to Haftar becoming commander in chief of the armed forces of a unified government. Some oppose him having any role in a unified government and some consider him a war criminal. Haftar has never been in favor of the GNA and he has allies in the HoR including the head Ageelah who have been instrumental in seeing to it that the HoR does not vote confidence in the GNA as required by the LPA. He launched Operation DIgnity in May of 2014 designed to fight against Islamist armed groups not just in Benghazi and Derna but also in the west where he includes many of the militia supporting the GNA as his enemies.
The Central Security Branch for North Tripoli known as the Nawasi Brigade reacted to Siyala's claims about Haftar with strong words:“We have followed with concern the remarks issued by the Minister-designate of Foreign Affairs Mohamed Sayala, in which he described Khalifa Haftar as a legitimate part of the solution, although he is not a part of the Libyan Political Agreement. Also disregarding Haftar’s attempts to undermine the security and stability of the capital Tripoli, the Libyan south and the massacres committed by his armed militias in the eastern region, which are blatant violations of human rights.”The group sent a letter to Sayala asking him to resign. It seems that the brigade is using the threat of force to enforce their demand for his resignation. According to a recent tweet: "Nawasy brigade entered ministry of foreign afairs." There are ongoing clashes in Tripoli involving other militia groups as well. Perhaps what is happening will be clearer in the morning.


Six point plan for peace in Libya by UN envoy Martin Kobler

Martin Kobler, head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) yesterday tweeted the outline of a six-point "road map for peaceful Libya".

As he has said many times he regards the Libyan Political Agreement(LPA) signed in Skhirat, Morocco in December of 2015 as the core of any forthcoming peace talks. Yet the LPA has been one of the main roadblocks keeping the eastern-based House of Representatives (HoR) from voting confidence in the rival Government of National Accord (GNA) and its Presidency Council (PC). The last vote was on August 22, 2016 and failed to pass. There has been little progress since. Though there has been a meeting recently between head of the PC Faiez Serraj and head of the armed forces of the rival HoR government, Khalifa Haftar, and it was claimed to have been positive and resulted in an agreement. However, no formal statement was issued after the meeting, and the two sides ultimately issued separate statements that differed considerably. A number of contradictory accounts of details of what was agreed to have been circulating as indicated in a recent Digital Journal article.
As usual, what Haftar says is less important than what he leaves out. In order for the LPA to be used as a basis of a political solution it will need to be amended so that Section 8 making the PC rather than Haftar the commander of the Libyan Armed Forces is deleted. As opponents of the GNA have often pointed out the present GNA lacks any legitimacy:Article (12)
All institutions stipulated in the Libyan Political Agreement shall derive their legitimacy from the Constitutional Declaration and its amendment as annexed to this Agreement after its endorsement and adoption in its entirety, signing and entry into force. Should it be necessary to introduce subsequent amendment to the Constitutional Declaration that affects, whether directly or indirectly, the Agreement or any of the institutions that emanate from it, the House of Representatives and State
Council shall commit to achieve consensus among themselves to agree on the format of such amendment. The final endorsement of this amendment shall be given by the House of Representatives, without amendment, based on the mechanism stipulated in the Constitutional Declaration.
This would seem to allow a path to change the LPA, but Kobler appears to be seeking to amend the LPA by calling together Dialogue members chosen by the two sides, who he thinks, can simply amend the agreement. It is not clear exactly what sections of the LPA allow this if there are any. Kobler never gives details about such matters and reporters and analysts don't seem to bother about them at all, or at least discussion of the issue never makes it to the mainstream press. There is still no word about when and where the Dialogue members will meet. The HoR has chosen its members finally, after other members of the dialogue meeting in Tunis claimed to have already amended it something that has fallen off the press radar.
Kobler's second point is that the security apparatus should be united and they should be disallowed from using violence. Presumably he means unauthorized violence. I assume that he means disbanding the militias and forming a unified army and security apparatus instead of depending on militias as happens now..There are numerous militias with their own agendas often engaging in turf wars and some of them more like criminal gangs than groups providing security for the state. The LPA clearly saw this as necessary and has several portions dealing with the problem but virtually nothing has been done with results that are nothing short of disastrous. Clashes are endemic especially in the capital Tripoli. Kobler has no suggestions as how this unity of security can be accomplished.
The third point is that the financial and economic institutions should be supported so that they become stable and more in contact with the PC of the GNA. However, the Libyan Central Bank and the National Oil Companies must play a delicate balancing act as the eastern HoR government controls many areas where the oil wells's security is provided by forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar. Unless the funds from oil are divided in a manner acceptable to the east then the whole system could be shut down and everyone loses. There are signs that the Central Bank has at times refused necessary funds for the GNA to carry on all its activities. Again, Kobler has no advice as to how what he claims is necessary can be achieved.
Kobler then says: "Fourth is national reconciliation programs that include all the Libyan parties without any exclusion, while fifth is giving the governmental local bodies like municipalities more authorities, responsibilities and financial support to act each on the level of their municipal duties." The fourth point is well taken but may be difficult to set up in a manner that the meetings are not slanted in the direction of groups with their own agendas. The fifth point is complicated by the fact in the eastern part of the country under the influence of Khalifa Haftar many local authorities have been replaced by military officials. Kobler fails to even take note of this issue.
Kobler's final point is that neighboring countries should work with Libyan officials in both military and political divisions to facilitate a new round of "sincere dialogue". However, this ignores the fact that there are at least two significant sets of Libyan officials from the two rival governments. According to a UN resolution they should only deal with GNA officials but given the reality of the political division this makes no sense and countries violate the resolution all the time and no one says boo, They even deal with Ageela Saleh the sanctioned head of the HoR. While Kobler does point out some of the essential steps forward to solve the Libyan crisis, he says nothing about how what is necessary can be actually achieved. It remains to be seen if the recent meetings between Serraj and Haftar result in anything positive. There already appears to be renewed militia activity against the GNA by some militia in Tripoli.


Canadians' opinion of the United States hits an all time low

In 2012 nearly 70 percent of Canadians had a favorable opinion of the U.S. Today that has dropped to 44 percent, less than half. This is the lowest value recorded since polls began way back in 1982

The poll was just released by Environics Institute on Monday. The entire poll can be found here.
Donald Trump`s election had a dramatic impact on Canadian opinion about the U.S. the report claims. 20 percent of Canadians now say they have a 'very unfavorable' opinion of the U.S. and 33 percent said they had a 'somewhat unfavorable' opinion of the country. The changed attitudes will have an economic impact through reduced travel to the U.S. Almost 20 percent said they had already changed travel plans because of the political situation in the U.S. Another eight percent were contemplating doing so.
The survey was of 2,002 Canadian resident contacted by phone between April 3 and 15, 2017. Results are accurate within 2.2 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
In a poll last month, Abacus Data found that Canadians thought that Canada should not behave more like the U.S. When asked whether 'Canada should try to be more like the United States', 80 percent disagreed while only 20 percent agreed. Asked whether Canada should join conflicts with the U.S. in various countries, nearly half or more in each case preferred Canada remain neutral or even oppose military action and opt for diplomatic solutions:In light of Trump’s more combative approach to foreign affairs, the firm asked if Canadians could get behind their country joining the U.S. in an armed conflict against Syria, North Korea, Russia or China. In each hypothetical case, nearly half or more preferred Canada remain neutral or outright oppose military action while pushing for diplomatic answers.However 20 percent of Canadians favored joining in a military mission to remove Bashar Assad from power in Syria. 32 expressed support for the U.S. without participation. 20 per cent would also favor joining the U.S. against North Korea but with just 26 percent even approving public support without participation.
The U.S. did not come out well in some comparisons with China:When asked which country was doing more to “try to maintain peace and avoid conflict,” 61 per cent of respondents chose China. Fifty-seven per cent said China was “showing a better example of what world leadership should look like,” and 54 per cent said the nation was “more stable and predictable” than the U.S.
Only ten percent approved of Canada being involved in a war with China.. However on the issue of free speech, 84 percent agreed that the U.S. was more committed to the right than China. 61 percent of Canadians surveyed also saw the U.S. as doing more for the poor and 57 percent also thought the US was doing more to address climate change and environmental issues.
Bruce Anderson and David Coletto of Abacus write in the poll summary: “That so few believe Canada should be more like America is an illustration that for many Canadians, Trump’s America is not, for the moment anyway, a ‘shining city on a hill.'” The survey was conducted online between April 21 to 24. A random sample of 1,500 adults were chosen from a representative panel of some 500,000 Canadians. The margin of error for a similar poll would be 2.6 percent 19 times out of 20.


Taliban take another area in Northern Afghanistan

(May 8)After announcing their spring offensive just a week ago, the Taliban have captured a second area in Afghanistan, a district in the northern Kunduz province

Mahfoozullah Akbari, a spokesman for the police in Kunduz, claimed that Taliban fighters attacked the district of Qala-e Zal "from several directions" on Friday. They took full control of the district by mid-morning on Saturday. He said there had been fierce resistance from security forces but they were driven back before reinforcements arrived. The Taliban said on their website that they had killed a number of soldiers, police and pro-government militia members and seized a huge cache of weapons and ammunition.
The Afghan forces beset by killings, desertions and declining morale is already stretched to its limits as the Taliban are fighting in many different areas not just the traditional southern strongholds. As shown on the appended video border police were brought to help defend a provincial capital. The casualties are up 35 percent in 2016 with 6,800 soldiers and police killed according to a US source. In March, Taliban fighters dressed in Afghan army uniforms attacked a government military base near Mazar-i-Sharif city killing at least 135 troops at the base. Al Jazeera quotes Afghan officials as saying that there were 140 killed plus 160 wounded in the attack.
The Taliban were driven from power over 16 years ago and they have been fighting ever since with Afghan forces and their allies led by the US. In 2014, the US officially ended their combat campaign but kept a number of troops in the country along with some of its allies to help train the Afghan security forces. However, the US also has been involved in continuous anti-terror campaigns and also has used drone and aerial attacks both in counter-terror activity and in support for Afghan-led fights against the Taliban. Even now almost half of Afghanistan is contested by or under control of the Taliban. The US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction(SIGAR) claims the Afghan government only controls or influences 57 percent of Afghanistan's 407 districts.
The Islamic State (IS) is also active in Afghanistan. The US even dropped the Mother of All Bombs (MOAB) on a group of tunnels and caves in an IS stronghold in the mountains near the Pakistan border. However, afterwards there were still clashes with the IS fighters in the area. Although Afghan officials reported up to almost one hundred casualties there has been no confirmation and access to the site is restricted. The US has refused to confirm casualty numbers or released further information itself. The IS claim there were no casualties!The series of caves and tunnels was apparently originally built with the help of the CIA to help jihadists fight against the Soviet-backed Afghan regime.
At the end of March there were approximately 8,400 US troops left in Afghanistan along with another 5,000 from other NATO countries. General John NIcholson, top US general in Afghanistan has been requesting up to 5,000 more US troops to break what he calls the stalemate between Afghan forces and the IS.


Friday, May 26, 2017

Nine Pakistani census takers killed near Afghan border

(May 6) Pakistani security officials claim that at least nine people have been killed and 33 wounded when they came under fire from Afghan forces. Those attacked were conducting a census near the Afghan border. Casualty accounts vary.

The attack Friday was near the Chaman border crossing into Pakistan's Balochistan province. The attack prompted security forces to ask people on the border to evacuate. The incident resulted in the Chaman border crossing being closed. Pakistani military spokesperson, Asif Ghafoor, said that firing was still going on. Chaman is one of only two main border crossings from Afghanistan to Pakistan. Ghafoor added: "Since April 30, Afghan Border Police had been creating hurdles in conduct of census in divided villages of Killi Luqman and Killi Jahangir in Chaman area, on Pakistani side of the border."
Ghurzang Afridi, an Afghan spokesperson claimed that the Pakistani census team had been working on the Afghan side of the border. Pakistan is in the second phase of its first door-to-door census in 19 years. There are more than 100,000 enumerators plus double that number of troops taking part in the census.. There has been political debate as to how the census may change electoral constituencies. The 2,500 kilometer-long border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is largely unpoliced and passes through much mountainous terrain.
Pakistan has recently tried to put fences and border posts along the border in an attempt to curtail the movement of Taliban fighters into Pakistan. However Afghans have resisted the move and dispute the location of the border. Earlier, in February Pakistan closed off all border crossings with Pakistan after more than 100 were killed in a wave of attacks. AL Jazeera reported:"Pakistan's decision to close two border crossings with Afghanistan following a wave of deadly attacks has forced cross-border trade to grind to a halt.Pakistan closed the Torkham and Chaman borders after Thursday's suicide attack at a sufi shrine in the southern Sindh province which killed at least 88 people.The attack at the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine in Sehwan was the worst attack on Pakistan soil since 2014 and the latest in a wave of violence last week that claimed more than 100 lives.The closing caused chaos at the border as many trucks loaded with perishable goods were stopped.There were frequent clashed between the Pakistani Taliban and Pakistani military forces in several districts. In March 20, Nawaz Sharif; Pakistani PM ordered the crossing to be reopened. Since the census began in March, some teams have been attacked by Pakistani Taliban fighters.
Residents in the area where the attack took place said that Pakistani and Afghan forces used both light and heavy weapons in an exchange of fire. Akhgar Mohammad a doctor at the state-run hospital in CHaman said “So far, we have received nine bodies. These civilians were killed as a result of the Afghan shelling.” He reported at least 42 wounded on the Pakistani side alone including women and children. Some of the wounded he said were in critical condition.
Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif in a statement called the Afghan firing "unfortunate" and he urged Afghanistan to end cross-border attacks that threatened the peace between the two countries. Nafeez Zakaria Pakistani foreign minister claimed that the census workers were on the Pakistani side when attacked, General Abdul Raziq, police chief in Kandahar province said that the census was being used to conceal crossing of militants from Pakistan to Afghanistan. He claimed that 4 Afghan policemen and 2 civilians were killed and 37 wounded by fire from Pakistan forces. Raziq claimed: “Pakistani forces were trying to infiltrate Afghan territory but Afghan forces stopped them; that’s when the fight started,”

No final agreement after key meeting between rival Libyan officials

(May 3) There was no official statement after Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army associated with the eastern-based House of Representatives (HoR) government met with Faiez Serraj head of the Presidential Council (PC) of the rival GNA.

According to Reuters: " Rival Libyan camps issued separate statements on Wednesday promising to calm tensions in southern Libya and fight terrorism, but offering no shared way forward for a political deal to unify the North African country." There are also conflicting reports about what was agreed to according to pro-Haftar sources some of which are described in a recent Digital Journal article. Reuters says that Seraj's statement does not mention the plans reported by pro-Haftar media to restructure the GNA government as well as hold elections next year. The two sides apparently tried but failed to agree on a joint statement. Reuters claims :
Conflicting accounts of initial agreements and leaks of documents neither side signed have in the past confused international mediation and negotiations to end the conflict in Libya, which fell into factional fighting in the years after a 2011 civil war ousted Muammar Gaddafi.I agree completely.
The statement from Serraj's office said that the meeting was held in order "to achieve a peaceful settlement for the Libyan crisis' and called for a "an expanded dialogue to establish national consensus". It also stressed the need to "uphold the goals of the February revolution" against Gaddafi. The statement spoke of the need to build up an army under civilian control, to combat terrorism, defuse the escalation of violence in the south and "taking all measures that guarantee the peaceful hand-over of power". A statement carried by pro-Haftar media focused on protecting the army and spoke of the "need to address the proliferation of armed formations." It also mentioned that amendments to the Libya Political Agreement had been discussed but did not give details. As discussed in my earlier article, various sources both on twitter and media reports gave conflicting details about amendments. So far it is not clear what if anything was agreed to and it is also clear neither Serraj nor Haftar signed any agreement. Much of what is happening may be just hopeful positive spin based on the fact that the two actually were able to meet. The Haftar forces used the occasion for a propaganda blitz that appears to have been largely successful.
There have been many tweets on the issue. As usual the UN envoy Martin Kobler spins the event positively in a tweet:"welcome & encouraged by President Sarraj-Field Marshal Haftar meeting in #UAE. Key step toward #LPA implementation, w/ continued @UN support" It is not clear exactly how the meeting has facilitated that. The meeting has not even resulted in a ceasefire in the south where clashes between forces loyal to Haftar and the GNA are still ongoing. A tweet reports: "That's right, artillery shelling around Tamanhint, clashes near Derna & rumors about *a new LNA OP* in Al Sabri / Souq al Hout, Benghazi." Operation Dignity will continue both in the south and elsewhere.
Perhaps this is the start of a positive process or it may be that Haftar is simply going through the motions of pretending to negotiate an agreement while continuing his Operation Dignity operations on the ground. According to Mattia Toaldo, a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, the meeting shows that Haftar wants to be part of the political process and wishes to run as a candidate for president in elections next year in March as required by the Libyan Political Agreement. Perhaps after more meetings scheduled next week we will have a clearer idea of what is going on.


Thursday, May 25, 2017

Al Qaeda leader insists it fights along with US-supported Sunni groups in Yemen

The leader of Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) claims that his group fights alongside Sunni fighters loyal to the government of Mansour Al-Hadi supported by the United States as well as Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries.

AQAP leader Qasim al-Rimi told the group's media arm al-Malahem that his followers were de facto aligned with an array of forces in the complex conflict saying: “We fight alongside all Muslims in Yemen, together with different Islamic groups,” he said, including “the Muslim Brotherhood and also our brothers among the sons of (Sunni) tribes.” These alliances are all fighting against the Shia Houthi rebels who are supported by Iran. However, AQAP along with the Islamic State members in Yemen have also attacked the Hadi government now located in the southern port city of Aden. The Hadi government formerly in exile in Saudi Arabia has conquered much of the south of Yemen whereas the Houthis still control the north and west including the capital Sanaa.
The Hadi government appears to tolerate AQAP in areas where it is cooperating with local Sunni groups to fight against the Houthis. The US does give aid to to the Hadi government in terms of refueling planes and also providing intelligence and no doubt weapons:While al-Rimi did not elaborate on what he meant by “alongside”, many Sunni tribal militias, as well as the pan-Arab Muslim Brotherhood movement and conservative Salafis, are allied to the exiled Yemeni government fighting against Shia rebels known as Houthis who seized control of the capital Sanaa in 2014. The militias receive extensive funding and arms from the U.S.-backed Saudi-led coalition, which has supported President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi with air strikes and ground troops since March 2015.AQAP was formed in 2009 after the merger of smaller jihadist groups. It has formed alliances with many Sunni tribes around the country. AQAP has taken advantage of the civil war to extend its influence in many areas controlled by the Hadi government.
The U.S. has always regarded AQAP as an enemy and it has been a key target of drone strikes in the country for long before Trump took power. Al-Rimi has a bounty on his head of $5 million. Since Trump took power the U.S. involvement in Yemen as increased considerably. As discussed in a recent Digital Journal article there were more than 80 drone strikes during March and April. Just after taking office Trump approved a commando raid on an alleged AQAP base. Supposedly it was targeting Al-Rimi but failed to get him. While called a success by the Trump administration a Navy Seal was killed and numerous civilians killed as discussed in a recent Digital Journal article.
The Pentagon apparently would like to join the Saudis in capturing the last port on the Red Sea held by the Houthis Hodeidah. Not all in the U.S. Congress agree: A new open letter from a bipartisan group of Congressmen has called on Defense Secretary James Mattis to “reconsider” the push for involvement, warning that support for the war was never authorized by Congress, and that the U.S. shouldn’t participates in the “senseless humanitarian tragedy.”
Yemen’s civil war has killed more than 10,000 people to date and left more than half of its 27 million strong population reliant on food aid. The international community has condemned the Saudi Arabian bombing campaign, which is thought to be responsible for most civilian deaths. The UN has warned that only half of the $2.1 billion in funding needed to avert catastrophe has been pledged so far. Taking of the port of Hodeidah from the Houthis will make it even more difficult to send supplies to areas controlled by them where the need is greatest.


Results of meeting between key rival officials in Libya are unclear

Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army(LNA) associated with the eastern-based government of the House of Representatives (HoR) was to a meeting in United Arab Emirates (UAE) just three weeks ago.

The last meeting was at the invitation of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed. He is said to have met secretly with a US official at that time. The present meeting too is at the invitation of Sheikh Mohammed who is not just the crown prince of Abu Dhabi but deputy commander of the UAE armed forces. The UAE organized a meeting of Haftar with the head of the Presidential Council(PC) of the Government of National Accord (GNA), Faiez Serraj. There has been pressure from many quarters to have Serraj meet with Haftar, including Egypt, Russia, and the US.
In February, Haftar had refused to meet with Serraj in Cairo after the Egyptian government had one planned. Apparently, he refused because the head of the HoR, Ageela Saleh was in Cairo at the time and Haftar felt he should attend as well. Egypt was apparently angered at Haftar's action and relations seem to have cooled somewhat. Egyptian president Abdel el-Sisi has been a staunch supporter of Haftar. The UAE has also been a prime supporter of Haftar, providing him with equipment and probably bombing Tripoli several times on his behalf back in 2014.
A BBC post notes that Western governments have recently appeared to take on a more serious mediation role in order to end the political and military impasse in the country. As the article notes Haftar refuses to recognize the authority of the UN-brokered Government of National Accord accepted by the UN and most countries as the legitimate government. A UN resolution states that countries should not meet with officials of parallel Libyan institutions that do no recognize the GNA. However, countries do so all the time. Last April a UN Security Council Statement said:The members of the Security Council renewed their call in resolution 2259 (2015) on Member States to cease support to and official contact with parallel institutions that claim to be the legitimate authority, but are outside of the Libyan Political Agreement as specified by it.Numerous countries have had meetings with Haftar who heads the parallel LNA and with Ageela Saleh who heads the HoR parallel government and is actually sanctioned. The article notes that one of the prime reasons that Haftar does not accept the GNA is because under the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) that sets up the GNA section 8 gives the function of commander in chief of the Libyan Armed Forces to the PC rather than him. He wants to remain commander in chief.
The HoR last rejected the required motion of confidence in the GNA required by the LPA last August 22. Virtually nothing has been accomplished since then. There was supposed to be a new cabinet presented within ten days. There is still no new cabinet nor any amendment to the LPA. One of the conditions that the HoR has set for even participating in a dialogue is the deletion of section 8. It is highly likely that many members of the PC, GNA, and the High State Council, will reject the deletion of section 8 and refuse to accept Haftar as commander in chief of a united Libyan armed forces within a unified GNA. The BBC article concludes:Today there are signs that both sides may be willing to give an inch over the matter to reach a workable compromise. How long that will take in Libya’s snail-paced ‘progress’ is anyone’s guess.
The latest article from Al Jazeera says nothing about what the meeting accomplished:Both men were expected to discuss army-related amendments to an agreement signed by the Libyan factions in Morocco in December 2015, according to Abu Bakr Baeira, a member of the eastern parliament. Libyan television broadcaster 218 reported that the two held talks "in private" after posing for a photograph together. Emirati officials did not immediately comment.
However there is lots of activity on Twitter that remains to be confirmed. Several tweets claim that an agreement was reached between the two. One says: Under deal, "presidential and parliamentary elections to be held within 6 months of agreement coming into effect." (al-Arabiya). Another says: 3-person presidency council including Serraj & speakers of Tripoli & Tobruq parliaments will serve as "supreme commander of armed forces". An article in Arabiya however notes that there was no official statement at the end of the meetings. In other words, there is no official confirmation of any agreement. The news about agreements comes from interested parties. Al Arabiya speaks of sources close to Haftar as saying that the talks were positive. Libya 218 channel, a pro-Haftar TV outlet said that he and Serraj had agreed to canceling the clause and to form a restructured unity government. A source in Abu Dhabi said: “It was agreed to open permanent channels of communication and to form two working groups to complete an agreement on the details of the formation of a government and the military arrangements between officers from all regions." The source also said that they had an agreement to hold parliamentary elections no later than March 2018. The paper notes that there was no comment from the GNA.
Until there is further confirmation it is not clear what is happening. It would seem unlikely that the PC or the High Council would agree to deleting Section 8. While replacing it with a clause that makes Serraj plus the speakers of the Tobruq and Tripoli parliament's function as supreme commander might be acceptable to the PC and Council, it is somewhat surprising that Haftar would accept it. However, perhaps he thinks he can run for president and become Abdel el_Sisi the second. There now may be another unlikely scheme by international forces to involve Libya in possibly even more chaos. As of now, there is no speaker of the Tripoli parliament since until the GNA is approved by the HoR there is no GNA parliament. Or perhaps the HIgh State Council is parliament for now as it declared last September! Is Sewehli the planned third member of the PC!
UPDATE: A new article has just appeared in the Libya Herald about the Serraj Haftar meeting. It shows how unreliable reports about what happened are. The Herald sources are "unconfirmed reports". The reports differ wildly from others. For example, the narrative about the Presidential Council changes: The formation of a new presidency council to comprise a president plus the head of the House of Representatives and the general commander of the Libyan armed forces". The report also claims section 8 of the LPA will be deleted. So the third member of the PC would be Haftar. This might suit Haftar but it is non-starter with most members of the PC and the High State Council. Apparently Egyptian President el-Sisi is to join Haftar and Serraj in Cairo next week for further discussions. The official plan by the UAE and Egypt to help Haftar take over Libya may be unveiled then.